By John St. Mark
If you pay attention to wine labels you may have noticed references to "old vines." Why should that matter? How long do grapevines live?
First, let’s be sure we’re talking about old vines and not about old wine. The year on the label refers to the year of the harvest (or, more accurately, to the year the grapes developed on the vine; in some exceptional cases, grapes are left on the vine into the winter and harvested after the New Year has begun.) That is important information because conditions that affect wine quality (the weather, mainly) vary from year to year. In addition, wine evolves over time so it is useful to know how old it is.
"Old vines," on the other hand, refers to the age of the plants that produced the grapes that were used to make the wine; their influence on wine quality is very different from that of time spent aging the wine. There is no generally agreed upon minimum age for a vine to be considered "old"; use of the term tends to be relative and can vary greatly depending on numerous considerations.
A vine will produce fruit in its second year (sometimes even in its first summer) but commercial harvest typically begins in the third season. Over the next several years, the quality of the harvest is likely to be somewhat inconsistent as the plant develops and root and shoot characteristics vary. A vine that is well established will yield a more predictable harvest. Eventually, vigor will begin to decline due to age and, possibly, to disease, so vineyards are replanted from time to time; just how often that happens will depend on local conditions and on the grower’s priorities. According to the conventional wisdom older, less vigorous plants will yield less fruit but the concentration of desirable compounds that give the wine flavor will be greater.
Older vines are likely to have deeper root systems (if the depth and permeability of the soils allow the roots to penetrate) so they will have better access to ground water, and they will regulate water usage better. Young vines with shallow roots tend to overuse water when it is abundant, produce a lot of foliage, and collapse during drought (without irrigation.) Excessive vegetative growth can result in more vegetal flavor, and high water content can dilute the wine.
It is also argued that development and concentration of flavor and aroma are not necessarily a matter of age but rather of "balance," meaning that appropriate spacing, trellising, training and pruning of vines can achieve the desired results by regulating such factors as the vines’ size and configuration in relation to the quantity and distribution of fruit and the amount of sunlight reaching the leaves and grape clusters. Old vines can attain good balance naturally, whereas young vines require skillful management to achieve balance.
Then again, vines that produce good wine are likely to be kept, and vines that produce inferior wine are likely to be replaced, so typically old vines are well matched to excellent sites. At least in part, then, old vines tend to be good vines as a consequence of selection.
Under optimum circumstances, grapevines can survive to a great age. Here are some renowned examples:
- A 1913 publication from the Western Guidebook Company in Berkeley, California describes the Carpinteria Vine near Santa Barbara as the largest in the world. It was planted in 1842, and in 1896 it yielded 10 tons of fruit!
- The Great Vine in the Hampton Court Palace Gardens in Surrey, England is said to have been planted around 1768 by Lancelot "Capability" Brown, surveyor to King George III. It is still producing over five hundred pounds of table grapes per year.
- Local lore and scientific analysis affirm that The Old Vine in Maribor, Slovenia is about 400 years old, and possibly older. It grows on the façade of a building (aptly named Old Vine House) constructed in the early 16th century; a painting done in 1657 shows an already well-developed vine on the site. Wine is still produced from the roughly 100 pounds of fruit it yields each year.
In extreme cases such as these I don’t think we could expect exceptionally high quality fruit; vine age is just one of the many factors that contribute to the endless range of experiences wine can offer.